Erica Jones remembers when she was told a couple years ago her son Corey was nonverbal.
That's not true anymore.
“These past couple of months, we’ve been hearing sentences from him,” Jones said. “It’s unbelievable for us still.”
She credits the extensive help Corey received from medical professionals at The Emerge Center in Baton Rouge since his autism diagnosis at age 4. Now 6, Corey is in a transitional kindergarten class at Emerge and is on track to attend a more traditional school next year.
Marcia Blaize’s daughter Avery has been getting help from the organization since she was just 18 months old and was diagnosed with autism. Now 7 and attending a Catholic school in Baton Rouge, Avery has vastly improved and Blaize offers nothing but praise for the years of help her daughter received at the center.
“She’s very good at reading. She’s doing addition and subtraction,” Blaize said. “These are things I never expected.”
The tiny private kindergarten Corey and Avery attended at Emerge is about to undergo a significant transformation and expansion. The private school is closing and in August will reopen as The Emerge School for Autism, a public charter school.
“We designed it specifically around children with autism,” said Leigh Bozard, the school’s principal.
The private Emerge school charges about $11,000 tuition, though many of its 19 students are receiving private and public assistance.
The new public school, by contrast, will be free, though only students who live within the boundaries of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, which excludes Baker, Central and Zachary, can apply. Charter schools are public schools run privately via charters, or contracts.
Blaize served as a parent representative on Emerge’s board of directors while it was developing charter plans. Although happy to see the charter school nearing reality, Blaize said she remains frustrated that autism services of this caliber can’t expand more rapidly.
“It’s a remedy that’s just producing so much hope for children in their future,” she said. “Why can’t we get it done faster? Because we don’t have the money.”
Applications for an initial class of 22 to 24 kindergarten-age children are due by Jan. 15 — the deadline was recently extended a month. The school expects to have more applicants than spots and so is planning to hold a lottery in February to determine who is admitted.
About 1 in 68 school-aged children has autism or related disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s far more than the CDC's 2000 estimate of 1 in 150 children. Boys are 4.5 times more likely to have it than girls. Much of the increase can be explained by greater awareness of the developmental disorder and changes in practice that broadened the definition for an autism diagnosis.
Extrapolating from CDC data, Emerge estimates that between 170 and 260 children are born with autism each year in Baton Rouge.
The school is seeking children whose primary diagnosis is autism and disorders on the autism spectrum. The school, however, also helps children with certain other ailments in addition to autism, including the motor speech disorder apraxia, as well as other speech-language or learning deficits, Bozard said.
Emerge officials say they are drawing on their own experience, which goes back to when the organization was founded in 1960.
“There are not many schools that are doing this,” said Melissa Juneau, Emerge’s executive director.
Applicants to the charter school are asked to submit a current individualized education plan, as well as a diagnosis of autism from a medical professional, as defined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Bozard said the school plans to work with applicants to determine if Emerge is a good fit.
“All families, we’re inviting them to come and take a tour and see what we do,” she said.
The Emerge private school occupies the western wing of the 26,000-square-foot Emerge Center at 7784 Innovation Drive, which is southeast of LSU near the Gardere area. The complex, which opened in 2014, cost $8.1 million to build and was financed largely through private funds.
It is three times the size and serves twice as many kids as the organization’s previous home at 535 W. Roosevelt St., when it was known as the Baton Rouge Speech and Hearing Foundation. More than a 1,000 children a year receive a variety of services from the center and hundreds more are on waiting lists.
These days, the place is filled with offices for audiologists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, clinical psychologists, social workers and behavior analysts. It also has a large playground for children in its rear and special spaces such as a sensory gym equipped with special swings, foot bridges and trampolines meant for children with autism.
“We’ve been able at Emerge to bring everything under one roof,” said Juneau.
One roof won’t be enough because the school's portion of the facility was constructed only with kindergarten in mind. Eventually, the school plans to educate about 150 children ages 5 to 11; state law would allow it to take as many as 180 kids.
Emerge had been planning to build a new school on adjacent property by fall 2019, but construction plans are up in the air.
“We don’t have an exact time frame at this point, but (construction) will be in the next few years,” said Juneau.
The center is considering whether it needs to find additional school space elsewhere in the meantime.
The East Baton Parish School Board agreed in May to grant Emerge a charter. Emerge is one of at least four new charter schools set to open in Baton Rouge in the 2018-19 school year. Another of these new charter schools, IDEA Innovation, is under construction next door to Emerge.
On Dec. 14, the School Board approved a draft of Emerge’s five-year operating contract. The board, however, left many key details for Superintendent Warren Drake to work out with Emerge before finalizing the contract.
In its application, the Emerge school said it will focus on preparing children for elementary school, imparting them with “a functional communication system, improved independence, self-help skills and essential learner readiness skills.” It also pledged to bring its students to steadily higher levels of academic achievement. By fourth grade, for instance, 90 percent of its students would be scoring on grade level or better.
Bozard said the final performance goals Emerge will seek to meet are not set and are part of its contract negotiations.
Not all Emerge children, though, will stay through fourth grade. Part of Emerge’s model is that students transition to more traditional schools when they are ready to make that leap.
Emerge’s charter application calls for spending $79,361 per child its first year, declining to $67,198 per child by year seven. The typical Louisiana charter school spends far less, around $10,000 a year per child.
Unlike traditional schools, the majority of Emerge’s funding would come from private and public medical insurance. Only about a fifth of Emerge’s budget would come from per-pupil state education money; it will receive several thousand dollars more per child than other public schools because the state’s funding formula favors children with disabilities. And Emerge expects to raise a small additional amount through private fundraising.
Emerge already offers an enviable level of resources at its private school. Classrooms often have more adults than children and only a handful of children at most. And anyone needed who is not in the room is just down the hall.
Before he came to Emerge, Jones' son often would grow angry at his inability to make clear what he wanted, a common problem for those with autism.
“It used to be full-blown temper tantrums in the car, hitting his head, because he couldn’t communicate,” Jones said.
Jones, who also served on the charter's advisory board, said she feels blessed she was able to get Corey help at Emerge, but she said the need in Baton Rouge for autism services far outstrips supply.
“There’s a waiting list for a lot of places. It’s kind of crazy,” she said. “They say it’s early intervention that makes a difference, but it’s hard to get in.”
Blaize said her daughter is doing well in a more traditional school environment, but she said her experience is atypical.
“I have known other families that have bounced from school to school,” she said.
Although Emerge strives to get its children school-ready, not all schools are ready for them. So, Blaize said it’s good to have a place like Emerge to potentially return to.
“There are children that have left Emerge who would love to go back to Emerge,” Blaize said.